The Sopranos has the misfortune of being the last of 2006's gangster games to reach the shelves, trailing behind The Godfather, Scarface and the lukewarm Reservoir Dogs. It doesn't help that it's also the weakest of the pack, conclusively stealing that dubious honour thanks to mindless gameplay, horrendous camera and controls, and a story mode that can be completed in less time than it takes to watch a few episodes of the show. Indeed, the 'road to respect' of the title feels more like a cul-de-sac, as the entire game often seems more like one long interactive cutscene that can be romped through in a single evening.
But let's set the scene first.
As series creator David Chase has already made clear, he didn't want this game to connect with his precious show in anything but the most tangential way - never quite disowning the end product, but certainly distancing it from the real Sopranos in a none too subtle way. Thus you play as Joey LaRocca, a new face in New Jersey and the illegitimate son of Sal 'Big Pussy' Bonpensiero. For those unfamiliar with the show, Big Pussy was one of Tony Soprano's closest associates, who got fingered by the feds and forced to wear a wire. The discovery of his reluctant betrayal, and his inevitable execution, was one of the most dramatic and emotional scenes in the show's run. That the game ties in with such a pivotal dramatic moment, yet uses it as an excuse for nothing more than mindless violence, is just one of many frustrations in store for fans hoping for a product deserving of the source material.
Tony's lingering guilt over your father's demise gets you inducted into the mob, and you're soon running errands for the entire Soprano crime family. Beating people up, intimidating people, beating people up, dumping corpses and - occasionally - beating people up. You beat people up rather a lot. In fact, roughly 90 per cent of the game's thrifty length is spent slugging away against an array of foes that all fight in exactly the same way. It actually becomes rather surreal, the readiness with which strangers launch into unarmed combat with you. You'd expect such unprovoked fisticuffs from street thugs, but you later lock horns with lawyers, pharmacists and even surgeons who attack you on sight. Weird.
Unfortunately, the hand-to-hand combat engine really isn't up to the job. Already at a disadvantage thanks to a wayward camera which often leaves you staring at a close-up of Joey's chin or, even better, the other side of a wall, fighting is simply a question of hammering the X button for light jabs, Square for heavy attacks and Triangle for grapples. Items can be picked up and used to clobber foes, and it doesn't take long to realise that this is the quickest way to get through each encounter. Once an enemy is softened up, you can either drag them to specific environmental hazards for a spot of torture (similar to Volition's Punisher) or use some appropriately Sicilian brutality on their prone form. These finishing moves are pulled off by first using the d-pad to select the required attack and then follow the clumsy on-screen prompts to pull them off. The game even stops while the necessary button or stick waggle flashes before you, making these moves both pointlessly complicated to access yet insulting simple to execute. As rapid-fire pummelling of the X button gets the job done more often than not, it's all rendered rather moot.
The road less travelled
The Sopranos deserves some small credit for not taking the GTA rip-off route, but it's clear this decision was made for reasons of expediency rather than innovation. There's no free roaming here, no branching mission paths. You slug your way through small linear areas, and do as you're told at all times. There's no driving, and, in the occasional areas where it seems like you're in an open environment, any attempt to leave the immediate vicinity crudely turns you around before you can take more than a few steps. You're forever trapped in a tiny artificial world, like some foul-mouthed version of The Truman Show.
There is shooting but, oh mercy, it's even worse than the melee fighting. Pressing L1 draws your gun, and you automatically target the nearest enemy. You can't move the crosshair - it just sticks to their chest like glue. Nor can you use cover, or duck, so it's simply a question of standing in plain sight and swapping hot lead until someone falls over. The game even penalises you for using your weapon, a bizarre idea that should be annoying but - given how stiff and dismal the shoot-outs are - it's actually a blessing. See, the start of the game explains that the more public the place, the more respect you lose for using your piece in a careless fashion. Should Tony's respect drop too low, he'll have you whacked. There are no cops in the game, so this is the only penalty you face and, regardless of what I did, my respect level never dropped below 95 per cent so it's unclear just what you'd have to do in order to deserve such punishment.
The game lets you collect money from fallen enemies, or swipe 'loot' from the scenery, but then gives you nothing to spend it on apart from the occasional small bribe. I was carrying nearly twenty grand in my wallet before I stood in the right place at Paulie's table and discovered I could unlock content with my ill-gotten gains. The reward for my larcenous ways? Concept art! Several dozen pieces of delicious concept art! And short video clips of the cast recording their dialogue! How my heart pounded! There's also a poker game, which is only good for losing your money - or winning more to feed your burgeoning concept art addiction.
Lousy son of a glitch
Throughout, the game is full of such half-formed ideas, along with graphical rough edges and downright ugly glitches. The character models have that early PS2 look, all sausage limbs and body parts that merge into whatever objects they're touching. Up close, your view simply becomes a splintered mess of polygons. At one point, Joey got looped into his 'being shot' animation, and jerked and shuddered his way to an early grave for no reason. One dialogue choice bluntly refused to respond to the buttons, and it took five attempts to simply accept a mission. Several times, the screen just went black during a cutscene. And that's without mentioning the array of typical 3D quirks - characters magically pick up objects from metres away, character models judder and wobble during scene transitions, solid objects pass through one another. And this isn't even pre-release code - I was playing from a finished disc.
Yet even with all these presentation and gameplay spasms, most troubling is the longevity. The whole game can be completed in the space of a few hours, and when you're not smashing in the faces of anonymous goons, you're performing mundane and trivial tasks that couldn't be more obvious padding if they were stuffed full of those little polystyrene balls. Many so-called 'missions' often require you to do nothing more taxing than walk into the next room, talk to someone, and walk out again. The game limps to an end with an utterly predictable one-man assault on a dockyard, which suddenly requires you to make frequent use of your gun - a 'skill' the game has previously forced you to avoid. Even then anyone with a basic level of hand/eye coordination should be able to romp to the finish without having used a single restart.
In both narrative and gameplay terms, it's a flaccid finale. Plot threads are left unresolved and, thanks to David Chase's insistence on keeping the game at arm's length, nothing of consequence has happened - even though you murder the head of a rival family and a major character sells you out. Yes, most of the cast - including Gandolfini - turn up to earn a little extra voiceover cash but the show's writing talent is notably absent. Thus, while the game sounds a lot like The Sopranos, it never quite feels like The Sopranos - often revelling in the sort of dumb Mafioso clichés that the show cheekily subverts. The family drama, the therapy storylines, all the good stuff is completely ignored in favour of dumb brawling.
I've already prevaricated over this score longer than it took me to complete the game. Am I being too harsh? Isn't a few hours fun all that fans need? But you know what? Screw that. We need to raise our expectations and stop settling for third best just because we like the characters and, hey, it's still kinda fun if you ignore the crap bits. As we perch on the cusp of a bold new console generation there's simply no justification for games this anaemic and sloppy, especially at full price. Even in its best moments, The Sopranos is dull, shallow and repetitive - a game already five years past its sell-by date. If you love Tony and the gang, and are tempted to give this a spin just to see the result for yourself, a one-night rental will be more than enough to sate your curiosity. Just don't be surprised if you reach the end without breaking a sweat and then completely fuggedaboutit afterwards.